I’m a film fanatic. I love film. I have broad taste in films: I like films that are very popular, and I like films that audiences stay away from in droves. There are film genres that I avoid — mostly torture porn and misbehaving man-child movies — and, increasingly, there are films that I refuse to see on principle.
Here’s the thing. For almost as long as I’ve watched films, I’ve adored Woody Allen’s movies. I’ve included Annie Hall in my list of top three favourite movies for years(although, to be honest, I’ve been reconsidering each of the top three in recent years). I quote from it constantly. (“Keeps out the alpha rays, Max. You don’t get old.”)
I think I need to re-evaluate my fondness for Woody’s work.
And, okay, there’s a whole argument about being able to separate the artist from the art — I’m able to do that for a number of creators that I find objectionable. I can, for example, enjoy Roman Polanski’s movies even though I think he should be in a prison cell somewhere. But, as I said to any number of people in the run-up to the Ender’s Game movie, sometimes the artist’s actions are too egregious to ignore, and sometimes the artist’s ugliness becomes infused in the art.
The friend who originally turned me on to Woody’s work, back in high school, believed that Manhatten was his best film. For my part, the relationship between the Woody’s 42 year-old character and the Mariel Hemingway 17 year-old character creeped me out and I’ve never gone back to re-watch it after the first time I saw it.
After the allegations about Woody’s sexual assault of Dylan Farrow came out the first time, I sort-of viewed his work and his life with two minds. On the one hand, I allowed myself to buy into the media representation of the allegation as an element of a bitter separation between Woody and Mia. On the other hand, I found myself intensely creeped out by the relationship between Woody and Soon-Yi. Sure, people have made a lot of comments about why that relationship isn’t anywhere near as creepy as it might otherwise sound, but at the end of the day, the basic age disparity between the two creeps me out. (I will often judge people who break the “half your age plus seven” rule. Even Patrick Stewart, who I admire a lot, gets the side-eye from me on that point.)
And it’s also true that those child sexual abuse allegations come to mind often when I watch his films. The close relationship between the Woody Allen character and his niece, Jenny, in my second-favourite Allen film, Crimes and Misdemeanors now bothers me — there’s nothing textual that suggests anything inappropriate, but something gnaws at me every time I watch it.
Two of his films that came out shortly after the sex abuse allegations and his break-up with Mia are stories that give one pause. Deconstructing Harry is one of his ugliest films: in it, the Woody Allen character doesn’t respect other people’s right to tell their own stories, seems to have an unhealthy sex life, and makes bad decisions, including taking his son on a road trip without the consent of his ex-wife.
The other film, Celebrity, which I think is one of his stronger films from the nineties, basically ends with a cry for help because the main character (played by Kenneth Brannagh, but which is the typical Woody character) keeps making choices with his dick that seem to destroy his life and hurt the people around him. And, in some sense, that’s pretty much a recurring narrative in his work: wallow in the man pain of a character who makes choices (usually involving falling in love with someone) that will hurt the people around him. Sometimes the character manages to keep the choices a secret, and at other times, he leaves a trail of destruction in his wake. Celebrity is one of the few films in which the person making these choices seems to pay some kind of cost for these actions, over and above man pain: usually he manages to walk away mostly unscathed.
Even Hannah and Her Sisters seems to foresee the kind of problematic future that Woody will inhabit. In it, Elliot (Michael Caine) falls in love with his wife’s sister — a choice that seems sure to ruin two kinds of family. But, purportedly, the heart wants what the heart wants, so we watch Elliot wreak havoc.
Woody’s work has always been infused with elements of autobiography — everyone acknowledges that Annie Hall is really just the story of Woody’s relationship with Diane Keaton. And I think that makes it impossible to separate the artist from the art. And I’m both sad and somewhat ashamed to say that I overlooked the reprehensible parts of his work and life for too long.